The Baltic port of Kaliningrad sits in an isolated exclave of Russia squeezed between Poland and Lithuania. Once part of Prussia, then Germany, the former Königsberg was claimed by Stalin and became Russian almost overnight.
What was left of the German city after Allied bombing, its citizens, churches and football clubs, was expelled or extinguished. The newly named Kaliningrad rose in its place.
As a World Cup venue, its inclusion as a host city is political as well as geographical, Kaliningrad being closer to Berlin than to Moscow and almost walking distance from the EU border. In April 2018, Baltika, the flagship club created in the 1950s, left their creaking ground dating back to the Prussian era.
The last game there, a 1-0 win over Rotor Volgograd that pushed Baltika closer to a return to the Russian Premier after 20 years, attracted 3,000 people. For the 0-0 draw with Khimki, 25,000 gathered at the newly unveiled Kaliningrad Stadium, the World Cup venue where four group games include England’s with Belgium.
Its Prussian predecessor, the Baltika Stadium, was set up in 1892 by city councillor and banker Walter Simon in what was then Mittelhufen, today’s Tsentralny District. After considering razing it and constructing the new arena in its place, the modern-day authorities decided to site their €250 million-plus investment on Oktyabrysky Island. Referred to by medieval Prussians as Lomse, ‘Swamp’, this former grazing land was devoid of any housing precisely because the ground was marshy and unstable.
Work compacting and stabilising the soil took the best part of two years. Capacity of 35,000 will be reduced to 25,000 after the World Cup.
If the whole project screams ‘white elephant’ – the stadium is even covered with a stark wraparound exterior – then the Baltika Stadium is perhaps heavier with symbolism. The home of Königsberger STV, one of several prominent Prussian clubs, it was a sports complex that bore his name of Walter Simon until the 1930s, hosting games in the Baltic Championship. One of seven regional football associations organised around Germany until 1933, it was dominated by VfB Königsberg, who regularly beat teams from Danzig and Stettin, today’s Gdansk and Szczecin in Poland. Formed in 1900, VfB made the final four of the German national play-offs in 1923.
VfB’s own ground was the Sportplatz in what was then Maraunenhof, today’s Leningradsky District, still with plentiful parkland north of the city centre.
Their major local rival in this mini-league was Prussia-Samland Königsberg, based in Amalienau, today the western fringes of Tsentralny District. The blue-and-blacks won five Baltic titles, including the final edition in 1933.
After that the Nazis reorganised German football, with STV, VfB and Prussia-Samland going into the Gauliga Ostpreußen. That wasn’t all that was reorganised. The stadium that had been built by Jewish philanthropist Walter Simon was renamed after Erich Koch, the Gauleiter of East Prussia.
Some of the current Baltika Stadium still survives from pre-war times. The South Stand, now covered, is the same structure that oversaw Nazi parades in the 1930s and the tower over the halfway line was once crowned with a Fascist eagle. An information board behind the South Stand even has a picture of the sculpture.
The Gauliga Ostpreußen ran until early 1944, by which time the Eastern Front had come within close range. All Königsberg clubs, including VfB, who won the last five titles, were disbanded. The surviving German population was expelled.
Heavily bombed, Königsberg became Kaliningrad and part of the Soviet Union. Rebuilding involved removing all traces of German history. The portico at the main entrance to the Baltika Stadium was created from the walls of the damaged Altstadt Church.
It wasn’t until 1954 that the renamed city had a team of its own: Pishchevik, founded by the local fishing fleet. With the Fascist eagle removed from its tower, the stadium took the standard Soviet name of Dynamo.
In 1958, both club and stadium became Baltika.
Neither the Soviet nor post-Communist Russia eras were awash with success: the club bobbed along in the lower leagues. In 1995 Baltika won the second-tier title and reached the top flight for the first time. With Russian football in disarray, several traditional power houses struggling for form and finance, and many big clubs no longer part of the league set-up, the way was clear for Baltika to make an impact.
Placed seventh in their debut season, Baltika even reached the third round of the Intertoto Cup. Relegated that same year, 1998, Baltika have since played in the lower flight.
The club will continue to play in the new Kaliningrad Stadium – although another 20 years in the second tier, and seasonal journeys to Vladivostock, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk, may see followers dwindle in this unusual outpost of European football.
UK and other EU visitors to Russia require a visa – see Visa To Russia for details. Most hotels can also help with visa invitation letters.
Kaliningrad Khrabovo Airport is 24km (15 miles) north of the city centre. Unless you’re coming from Berlin, Prague or Warsaw, nearly all flights here require a change in Moscow or St Petersburg.
Minibus No.244 (every 40 minutes 8.20am-7.45pm, tickets 80 roubles/€1 on board) and city bus No.144 (18 roubles/€0.25 on board) take 30-45min to reach the main square of ploshchad’ Pobedy, on the same eastern side of town as the Kaliningrad Stadium. As a taxi should only be 500-600 roubles (€6.60/€8) it’s hardly worth the hassle to deal with public transport. Two kiosks outside Arrivals dispatch taxis.
Ploshchad’ Pobedy is next to Kaliningrad North (Severnyi Vokzal), a station serving local trains. The main terminus, Kaliningrad South (Yuzhnyi Vokzal), is over the river outside the modern city centre, connected by several buses to town. Note that if you’re planning to travel here by train from Moscow, you’ll need a Belarus transit visa (type B), current cost €60/€120 for 48hr process). Journey time is 21 hours. From St Petersburg, it’s 24 hours but you don’t cross Belarus.
City transport consists of buses, trolleybuses and trams, pay 18 roubles/€0.25 on board, and minibuses, pay 22 roubles/€0.30 on board. The city centre is walkable but if you’re staying north-west of town at, say, the Chaika Hotel, it’s a fair schlep to the Kaliningrad Stadium. The website eway24 can help with specific transport logistics.
Most taxi journeys across town cost around 150 roubles/€2. Maxim (+7 40 12 222 222) is a local Uber-type service that you can book online in English.
The Kaliningrad Regional Tourist Office has no online accommodation information. Independent hotels and the usual chains dot the city centre.
Within walking distance of the Kaliningrad Stadium, four-star Kaiserhof on Oktyabrysky Island offers waterside views, the quality Amber Spa, a restaurant and bar. Just along the embankment, cosy, 18-room Skipper stands next to an old lighthouse and carries on with the nautical theme in the lobby.
Just over the water, the ibis Kaliningrad Center is ideally located for both stadium and city centre, with its own bar and restaurant.
Slightly closer into town, still only about 2km from the stadium, the Kaliningrad on Leninskyi prospekt looks monumentally Soviet but is handy and affordable, its 200-plus rooms surprisingly unshoeboxy.
Further up Leninskyi at ulitsa Teatral’naya 30, the mid-range Evropa (+7 401 231 0495) sits opposite a pretty square with bars, including LiBEERty, on the other side. Right on focal ploshchad’ Pobedy, the Radisson is the most stylish choice in town, with a brasserie, bar and airport transfers.
Near the Baltika Stadium, and the line of pubs and restaurants on prospekt Mira, the three-star Moskva dates back to 1930 though the terse staff and atmosphere echo post-war Soviet Union. For enquiries about accommodation in June 2018, phone +7 401 235 0780 – and speak Russian.
Also close , the Cherepakha, aka Turtle Hotel, is a lovely find, with 11 comfortable and affordable rooms, a billiard room and sauna. It’s tucked off ulitsa Tchaikovskogo at Zoologicheskiy Tupik. Further down Tchaikovskogo, the pricier Tchaikovsky was converted into a hotel in recent times but retains the classy air of the early 1900s when it was built. Closer to the bars of prospekt Mira, the excellent Chaika exudes pre-war Königsberg, now an upper mid-range hotel with a spa and restaurant. TV channels include BBC World.
For a real cheapie 10 min from prospekt Mira, Amalienau at Karla Marksa 19 offers both hostel lodging and private rooms with shared facilities.
The intersecting streets of Leninskiy prospekt and prospekt Mira are best for a bar crawl, starting at that very junction with Irish-tinged LiBEERty, where you can watch TV football in pub comfort over cheap local beers, bar snacks also wallet-friendly. In this little hub you’ll also find Czech brews at Hašek (‘U Gasheka’), also with live music, and German ones at adjoining Zötler, which goes big on TV football.
Round the corner past the Radisson, the Planeta entertainment complex includes a large main pub lined with dozens of screens permanently showing football, a karaoke bar, nightclub and restaurant, plus summer terrace. At weekends, it runs until 6am. About 130 roubles/€1.70 will get you a decent local beer. Nearby, Britannika is a standard faux pub, part of a local chain of eateries called, bizarrely, the Britannica Project.
Further up on prospekt Mira, near the Baltika Stadium, London at No.33 is a pub/nightclub combo with plenty of beers on tap, live football a-plenty and a global menu.
A little out of the way at Sovietskiy prospekt 19, Sir Francis Drake is not worth crossing town for but handy if you’re staying at the Turtle Hotel, and on the No.5 tram route. Pub trappings include a large-screen TV.
One place worth seeking out for sport, beer and local history is the Redyuit beer restaurant at Litovsky val 27. Out on the ring road that traces the old city walls, it attracts local football fans for Russian league action on big screens, house-brewed ales and half-decent sausages. There’s a pleasant beer garden too, and the Kaliningrad Stadium is a short taxi hop away.